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Ease Up On ‘No Tolerance’ Policies, U.S. Agencies Tell Schools

Saying that "zero tolerance" discipline policies at U.S. schools are unfairly applied "all too often," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is urging officials to rethink that approach. The Obama administration issued voluntary guidelines today that call for more training for teachers and more clarity in defining security problems.

The move by the Education and Justice departments comes after years of complaints from civil rights groups and others who say the policies are ineffective and take an unfair toll on minorities. The zero tolerance approach has been blamed for boosting the number of suspensions and expulsions and for equating minor infractions with criminal acts.

"A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal's office, not in a police precinct," Attorney General Eric Holder said.

You can check out the Education Department's "School Climate and Discipline" plan online. It includes guidance that's aimed at helping teachers enforce rules fairly, as well as resources to "help guide state and local efforts to improve school climate and school discipline."

Prompted by fears of gang violence and shootings, zero tolerance discipline policies have taken hold in many U.S. states and school districts in the past two decades. As a report by the Vera Center On Youth Justice noted in December, some states adopted the polices to qualify for federal education funds.

But the policies have produced uneven results, reports Vera, which notes that in the U.S., "nearly a third (31 percent) of black boys in middle school were suspended at least once during the 2009-10 school year."

And as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports for Wednesday's All Things Considered, thousands of kids were referred to law enforcement, even if their behavior had not been violent.

"Federal government figures show that of the 3 million students who were suspended or expelled during the 2010-11 school year, a quarter of a million were referred to law enforcement, even though 95 percent were for nonviolent behavior. The overwhelming majority -- 7 out of 10 -- were black, Latino or kids with disabilities."

Today, the new guidelines were welcomed by advocates who have been working to change schools' approach.

"What is great about what has been released today," juvenile justice expert Deborah Fowler tells Claudio, "is that they give schools a variety of alternatives that have been proven successful."

An attorney, Fowler is the deputy director of Texas Appleseed, a group that has worked to break what it calls a "school-to-prison pipeline." The group has documented the effects of criminalizing wide swaths of students' undesirable behavior.

Fowler reels off a short list: "Chewing gum in class or talking too loudly, or so many of the things that when I was a kid would've been handled with a trip to the principal's office in Texas and elsewhere."

Claudio reports that teachers groups welcomed the news of the change -- even as they also wondered who would pay for the new training the guidelines suggest.

The federal agencies that proposed changes today aren't alone in seeing a problem. Last fall, Florida school officials rejected zero tolerance policies in an attempt "to reduce the number of children going into the juvenile justice system," as NPR's Greg Allen reported.

In that story, Greg visited one of the nation's largest school districts, in Broward County, where officials had begun recording data on disciplinary actions and crimes in school.

"In 2010 and 2011, there were more than 1,000 school-related arrests," he said, "and nearly three-quarters of them were for nonviolent misdemeanors."

And in Clayton County, Ga., changes were made after Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske noticed a huge rise in school referrals to police -- from 89 a year to 1,400 from the late 1990s to 2004, according to the website Safe Quality Schools.

The judge led an effort to work out a new plan, drawing on school officials, police and the court system.

Under that plan, in which youths get warnings and then go to mediation or training programs, "The presence of dangerous weapons on campuses has decreased by 70 percent," the site reports.

Safe Quality Schools is part of the Advancement Project. The head of that group, Judith Browne Dianis, tells Claudio that the new federal guidelines should put some school officials on notice.

"No longer should districts look the other way or make excuses for racial profiling in school hallways and in classrooms," she says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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